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Biographies: Men Who Thought Outside the Boundaries

By on October 28, 2015

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Biographies are doorways to the past. The picture book biographies included this month partner superb storytelling with exceptional paintings. The language used in these titles invites young people to explore the lives of memorable men. And, these books depend on artwork instead of photographs to convey time, place and the nature of the individual.
You can talk with your child(ren) about the relationship between the story and the text – does one support the other? Or perhaps, does information in the story explain what is happening in the pictures? Possibly, do the paintings make the words more clear? In any case, does the story make sense of the individual’s life? And, do you want to discover more about these amazing people who lived on the edge of important change in their world? Enjoy!

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America

by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrations by Jamey Christoph

Book_GordonParks2When Gordon bought a used camera and taught himself to take pictures, his success took him to Washington, DC. There, his photos for the Farm Security Administration showed the “unfairness of segregation.” Later, he became the “first black staff photographer and writer” at famous LIFE magazine.

Christoph’s illustrations are an engaging mix of styles, mostly browns and sepia tones to match a past era. Full-page spreads show Parks as a young boy. Several pages scattered through the story are a selection of images – paintings of his photographs. Weatherford’s lyrical language and occasional poetically aligned text keep readers’ attention focused on this “Renaissance man.”

Parks’ most famous photo, “American Gothic,” is of Ella Watson, “a cleaning lady in the building” where he worked. She is standing in front of an American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. In this one revealing photo, Parks most clearly discloses the “African American struggle against racism and the contradiction between segregation and freedom.”

An Afterword, Author’s Note and several of Parks’ photos are included as back matter. The final words, referring to Watson, echo down the years, “You don’t have to hear her story to know her prayer.”

Albert Whitman, $16.99; Interest Level: Grades 1-3; (This book is available to purchase from local and online booksellers.)


Fur, Fins and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo

by Cassandre Maxwell

Book_furAs a tiny child, Abraham loved animals. He dreamed of working with living animals, and constantly read about them. As a young man he continued learning about animal anatomy from his work preparing exhibits at the Museum of Natural History. He became the superintendent of the zoo in mid-1800’s Britain.

The cut-paper collage and mixed media illustrations provide color, depth and detail. Human and animal faces and bodies are expressively crafted. Text and pictures are matched seamlessly.

Small stories about several animals and how “Papa” Bartlett cared for them, as a “pioneer in veterinary medicine,” demonstrate his love for the animals. He kept detailed records and prepared appropriate foods. He also built spaces and habitats to house the creatures. Additionally, Bartlett posted signs and explanations. This first labeling of animal exhibits in the zoo named the animals and shared information with visitors.

A Time-Line, Author’s Note, and a brief bibliography are included at the end. Several notes are scattered across the inside front and back covers. This is an engaging book, and a charming story.
Eerdmans, $17.00; Interest Level: Grades 1-3; (This book is available to purchase from local and online booksellers.)

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate

BOOK_amazingageAlthough John Roy Lynch ‘s father was Irish, his mother was a slave. This meant John Roy and his brother were also slaves in the mid-1800’s United States. But their father, Pat, died before he could “buy” his family and treat them as free. John Roy and his family were sold. He worked as a house slave, and later as a cotton plantation slave. During the Civil War, when John Roy was sixteen years old, he bought a boat ride to freedom by selling a chicken to a Yankee soldier. He worked at several jobs until the war’s end.

Although parts of this story are heavy with “harsh realities,” the mixed media, ink and gouache paintings are filled with light. In spite of angry faces, a battle scene, and slave being whipped, Lynch’s life is ultimately hopeful. He finds work in a photography studio. This unexpectedly offers him the chance to go to class by watching and listening from across the alley. He can hear the public school teacher through the windows.

Lynch buys property, gets involved in the Republican club, and makes speeches. Visiting the new Mississippi governor, he recommends names to fill positions in the new state government. And gets appointed himself as a justice of the peace! Months later he is elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, becoming the Speaker of the House at age 25 years. Shortly after that he is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. He makes a passionate speech in support of the Civil Rights Bill. This bill becomes law! (Unfortunately, with no “means for enforcement.”)

This is an amazing story, with a strong storyline and carefully researched, well-matched illustrations. Back matter includes: an Historical Note, a Timeline, an Author’s Note, an Illustrator’s Note, a list For Further Reading, and maps of the Reconstructed U.S, 1870.

Eerdmans, $17.00; Interest Level: Grades 2-3; (This book is available to purchase from local and online booksellers.)

Additional Fascinating Biographies:

The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero

by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Terry Widener. Calkins Creek, $16.95; Interest Level: Grades 1-3

The Cosmo Biography of Sun Ra

by Chris Raschka. Candlewick Press, $15.99; Interest Level: Grades 2-3

Hello, I’m Johnny Cash

by G. Neri, illustrated by A.G. Ford. Candlewick Press, $16.99; Interest Level: Grades 2-3

Meribeth Shank works in the Media Center at Miami Country Day School, an independent school in Miami Shores, Florida, teaches classes on Writing Books for Children, and earned her MFA in writing for children from Vermont College. You can also find her on the web:

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